Why are NYPD murders on the rise?
November 2, 2012
It was 5 a.m. on October 4, and 22-year old Noel Polanco was driving himself, a co-worker and a friend home from his job at a nightclub in Queens when he was pulled over on a highway median by an unmarked vehicle.
It turned out that Noel had cut off a police car belonging to the Emergency Services Unit, a division of the New York Police Department tasked with responding in “high-crime areas.” Officers approached the car with rifles out, shouting at the driver to put his hands up. Within seconds, Officer Hassan Hamdy had fired one round through the open passenger window at the driver, killing Polanco, a U.S. Army Reservist.
“There was no time to put your hands up at all,” front-seat passenger Diane DeFerrari told the New York Post. “They shot in front of my face. Had I moved an inch, it would probably have been me.”
As DeFerrari told the New York Times, “This is all a case of road rage on behalf of the NYPD—that’s all this is.”
New York City has already paid out close to half a million dollars in claims against Hamdy for civil rights violations. The Polanco killing was so clearly unjustifiable that even NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly—breaking from past practice—called for a grand jury investigation.
This incident is only the latest in a string of murders committed by the New York Police Department this year. According to the Stolen Lives Project, 2012 saw 19 police killings, compared to 13 the year before. At this rate, the NYPD is on track for an increase of almost 70 percent in its murder rate, compared to last year.
In September, an NYPD officer shot and killed Reynaldo Cuevas, a 20-year old bodega worker, as he was fleeing his Bronx store which was being robbed. In the same 24 hour period, the police killed Walwyn Jackson in his Queens home. And in late September, Emergency Service Unit cops killed Harlem resident Mohammed Bah in his apartment doorway.
Jackson and Bah were among several cases in which the victims of the NYPD were mentally ill or troubled individuals—whose family members had called for help, but ended up on the receiving end of police violence instead. In March of this year, Shereese Francis, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was killed when four police officers attempted to subdue her by piling on top of her and literally suffocating her to death.
In the wake of the Polanco and Bah killings, NYPD officials transferred the head of the elite Emergency Service Unit. But this is clearly a long way from real justice given the scale of the killings. At least 221 people have been killed by the NYPD since the well-known 1999 case of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets in the entranceway to his apartment building as he reached for his wallet.
“Why should a mother have to bear such pain and bury her loved one?” asked Juanita Young, whose son, Malcolm Ferguson, was killed by Bronx police in 2000. “We call for help and our sons end up dead. Who are we supposed to call if police come and our loved ones are carried out in a body bag?”
The tragic reality is that family members have yet to see any kind of apology from the police, let alone any serious steps to address the crisis of police homicides. Instead, the police take pains to justify their actions while the death toll climbs. “Instead of progression, this is regression,” said Amadou Diallo’s mother, Katiadou Diallo, at a protest of about 300 people outside City Hall in the wake of the murder of Mohammed Bah, also originally from Guinea.
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WHAT’S BEHIND this recent jump in NYPD murders? Policing in communities of color is intensifying increased racial and class polarization. Repression is a constant feature of an unequal society, and with poverty, cuts to social programs and joblessness continuing to take a toll, racist police violence as a means of social control has accompanied this immiseration.
Despite a continued decline in crime, police are encouraged to view themselves as patrolling a literal war zone. New York City has the lowest crime rate among the nation’s biggest cities, as measured by the FBI. According to one report, there were 515 killings citywide last year, compared with 2,245 in 1990, and murders are down by 18 percent.
Yet hostile attitudes on the part of the police are ramping up. “Every single day, our lives are in danger. Everybody out here is in danger,” a Brooklyn cop told a reporter for Reuters. Meanwhile, a hysterical New York Daily News editorial in July, headlined “Stop and Frisk—or Die,” fueled the climate for heavy-handed policing in the wake of an officer injured by gunfire in a public housing stairwell. “Now, let’s play a mental exercise designed to illustrate how insanely close the city has come to judicially mandated lawlessness…[i]t is clear that police are targeting the right places for their most intense enforcement efforts.”
But the day-to-day experience for people of color in New York City is of relentless police abuse and harassment, and that has been intensified by a push to meet quotas on stop-and-frisks—the NYPD’s racial profiling policy—and for a higher numbers of arrests. According to the New York Times, “The data show the initiative is conducted aggressively, sometimes in what can seem like a frenzy…feeding the department’s appetite for numbers.”